IACSP Q&A With Former Navy SEAL Benjamin H. Milligan, Author of “By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the Navy SEALs
Benjamin H. Milligan became a US Navy SEAL in 2001 and served until 2009. He is the author of “By Water Beneath the Walls: The Rise of the U.S. Navy SEALs.”
Milligan received a Bronze Star and other awards while serving as a SEAL. A native of Indianapolis, he received a BA in History at Purdue University and an MA in International Relations at the University of San Diego.
the U.S. Special Operations Command, said the book was “deeply researched, well organized and incredibly engaging… This is our legacy with all the warts, the challenges, and the heroics in one concise volume.”
Benjamin H, Millgan was interviewed by Paul Davis.
IACSP: I read and enjoyed your book. I’ve interviewed a good number of SEALs and I’ve read a good number of books on the SEALs, but I like the way you put your book together, showing chronologically how American special operations groups came and went and how all contributed and led to the development of the modern Navy SEALs.
I was especially interested in your coverage of the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) in World War II, as my late father, Edward Miller Davis, was a chief in UDT 5, and Draper Kauffman, the founder of UDT, was his commanding officer. My father is mentioned briefly in Douglas Fane’s book, “The Naked Warriors.”
Milligan: That was probably my hardest chapter to write. One of the more fun things I got to go through Draper Kauffman’s personal papers. They were at his daughter’s house. I spent a day or two going through multiple file cabinets with papers her dad saved.
IACSP: There have been many books written on the history of special operations and the Navy SEALs. How does your book differ from those other books? How would you describe your book?
Milligan: My book is not a comprehensive history of the SEAL teams. It asked a question about the SEAL teams – how did this happen? I don’t think that anyone would have predicted that a naval special operations unit would be as land focused as the SEAL teams are, or that a Navy unit would have been selected to go kill Osama bin Laden in Central Pakistan. I never understood why this had come to be, so that is what the book was trying to solve.
In order to explain how that happened, you can’t just look at the Navy’s experience in special warfare, you have to look in context. You have to understand why the Army and Marine Corp kind of turned up their noses at that mission for such a long time and allowed the Navy to move into that gap. I think of the book as not necessarily a history, but so more of a biography. I try to treat naval special warfare (NSW) as a character. But like every good biography, you’re not just learning about the character, you’re also learning about the time. I took this opportunely not just to tell the history of the SEAL teams, the reason the SEAL teams exist, but to showcase all these other units who were contributing to it.
IACSP: What sparked your interest in this? Why did you write the book?
Milligan: I wanted to put some context around this thing. This had been a monumentally important experience in my own life, personally. I felt like the SEALs community deserved this. I wanted the teams to have this history and I didn’t see anyone else doing it. Part of the reason was I saw a gap in the scholarship that was out there and part it was I was absolutely obsessed with getting the answer to this. It turned into a ten-year obsession.
IACSP: For the benefit for those who have not yet read the book, would you explain what the title, “By Water Beneath the Walls” means?
Milligan: The title was one of the hardest things to come up with. When I started the book, the working title was “The Evolution,” which is a metaphor for how the theme of this drastic transformation the Navy special operation teams went through, to go from the sea to the land. But the more I looked at this history, the more I realized that title just didn’t work. Evolution is sort of inevitable, it’s mindless, and survival of the fittest. The more I learned about this history, the more I realized there were individuals who either decided that the Navy was going to move into this direction, or that the Army wasn’t going to move in this direction. There was nothing inevitable. It was very decisive. At every fork in the road, the Navy seemed to always pick the path that was leading them towards the greater contribution ashore.
When I finally had the whole book finally laid out in front of me, I thought what was a great underdog story, if not Justinian the II’s raid on Constantinople? They used an unguarded aqueduct. The walls of Constantinople are almost like the walls of the Army and the Marine Corp, keeping the Navy from gaining access to this mission. But ultimately, the Navy used the water to springboard themselves ashore.
IACSP: It’s an intriguing title. As you note in the book, all of the special operations groups from WWII and Korea were disbanded except for UDT. How did UDT survive?
Milligan: They were the only one that proved themselves to be indispensable to their branch of service. Every special operations unit in the Army had been by the end of it, deemed to be, not superfluous, but most commanders felt that a regular infantry unit, if well-trained, could perform the same missions. The same with the Marine Corps. Where the UDTs were distinct was the Navy could not operate without them. The Navy wouldn’t go anywhere unless they had their own on-call reconnaissance and demolition troops. I should empathize, reconnaissance, because demolition was secondary to UDT. It is recon, recon, recon. The reason that the Navy wanted their own unit was because the Marine Corp had over the years become more autonomist. Yes, they were still Department of the Navy, but as far as the order of battle in the U.S. military went, they had an equal status as the Navy. The reason the UDTs were kept around is because the fleet can’t operate without them.
IACSP: How did the SEALs go from coastal commandos to jungle fighters in Vietnam?
Milligan: When the SEAL teams were created, the Navy didn’t give them a mission statement. They had a vague idea what their job was going to be, and that vague idea was something like the UDTs were at the tail end of the Korean War, which was coastal raiders. When they create them, sort of maritime rangers, almost. But when they get to Vietnam in 1966, they corner them in this little pocket of swamp territory called the Rung Sat Special Zone, and there are no train tunnels or command posts. The SEAL teams almost self-deselect out of the mission. Their commander didn’t recognize any of the things they were trained to do, so he essentially tells his men to stand down. The SEAL teams eventually found their footing. What it came down to was the Navy’s bias for action. They moved to the Mekong Delta and stayed engaged. It takes a couple of enterprising folks, but they eventually learn how to do this capture/kill operation.
IACSP: The book has so many stories and features so many interesting characters. If you had to name three figures who most influenced the development of the SEALs, who would you name?
Milligan: The Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Arleigh Burke is the indispensable character in the creation of the SEAL teams. The SEAL teams would not have happened without him. The myth that the SEAL teams came about due to enterprising frogmen who were continuing pushing the envelope of amphibious warfare towards the shore and when President Kennedy came along, he caught wind of this and he authorized the establishment of the SEAL teams, That’s wrong. It didn’t happen that way. Arleigh Burke was the one pushing the Navy into unconventional operations and into creating the SEAL teams.
After Burke, the next indispensable character is probably Phil Bucklew. He is the vessel of naval special warfare history. He’s been there since the beginning. He was with the Scouts and Raiders; he had a hand in preserving the NCDUs at Omaha Beach. He went to China and lead guerillas. He went to Korea, and he was an ever-present advocate of unconventional Navy operations. And he became the commander of West Coast UDTs and SEALs. He’s the one that not only writes the Bucklew Report, the survey assessment that ultimately commits the Navy to a riverine war in Vietnam, he’s the person in charge when the Navy is trying to kick the SEALs out of Vietnam.
If I had to pick a third, it would be a toss up between Bob Wagner and Bob Gallagher. The two Bobs. Bob Wagner was a wheeler-dealer that convinced the CIA to let the SEALs run the PRO program. The other person is Bob Gallagher, who is relentless. He is the archetypal SEAL chief. He is the SEAL chief everyone should aspire to be. He was constantly pushing Second Platoon to do more. He taught the SEAL teams how to fight.
IACSP: I read that Admiral Howard, the commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, is shifting the SEALs focus from counterterrorism operations to global threats from nation states. They are going back to sea. That’s his expression. Is this a good thing, in your view?
Milligan: To say the Navy is going to shift back to the water is not a totally genuine way to describe it. I don’t think that what Howard is saying is anyway wrong. With the great power adversaries, the Navy has a lot more opportunities for involvement. I think that this is a natural transformation that the Navy will have to make.
IACSP: Of course, this might change with an increase in terrorism with the fall of Afghanistan.
Milligan: Yes, it might light back up again. I didn’t serve in Afghanistan, I served in Iraq, but I think there was much that could have been done better in Afghanistan. It was a gut-punch. Watching what was happening in Afghanistan was utterly heartbreaking. It was a heartbreaking as what is happening to the Kurds.
IACSP: Thank you for your service and thank you for speaking to us.